Every voice teacher is asked, “Can you show me how to hit really high notes?” And the answer is, “Maybe, maybe not.” The pleas continue: “My rock band is getting some local buzz, but I need to sound like Steven Tyler of Aerosmith, or else we’ll never get a record deal.”
One singer I know was told that a hit record requires a high, edgy male vocal because that type of sound cuts through best on the average car radio. Pushing the upper limits of the voice seems to be a male preoccupation; female performers these days are often expected to sound low and husky. These goals bring to mind Procrustes, a nasty character in ancient Greek mythology who required that all his guests fit in the same bed. Short visitors had their limbs roped to the bedposts and stretched; those who were too tall got their feet chopped off. This is not a pretty story, but it’s a good analogy for the demands imposed by some musical fashions.
The obvious message is that straining your voice in either direction might win an immediate gig or contract but can hurt your voice in the long run. A cello can’t be played effectively in a piccolo’s range any more than a Sumo wrestler can dance ballet en pointe. Each voice has its own limitations, and to make your best music, you must respect those limits. The first step is to identify your natural vocal range.
Let’s begin with an overview of some anatomy. The vocal folds (or “vocal cords”) are small, semi-elastic muscles. When you sing a scale or melody, your vocal folds are stretched longer and thinner for higher pitches, and they relax and thicken for lower pitches.
When your vocal folds are inflamed and swollen (when you have a bad cold, for example), your voice sounds lower than it normally does. Conversely, when you are excited or anxious, your voice sounds higher than usual, because stress activates hormones that increase the tension in the vocal folds, tightening them just like a guitar string.
These pitch-controlling muscles are neither consciously manipulated nor outwardly visible, so we learn to control them by ear. Different pitch ranges also require modification of breath support, but this is less significant than the length and tension of the vocal folds. With careful practice over time, you can make your vocal folds stronger and more supple, but their flexibility is finite.
How do you find the singing range that is realistic for you? One way is to visit a speech laboratory and get a phonetogram, or Voice Range Profile. You can find these labs at certain universities and research-oriented medical centers. You’ll be asked to sing various notes into a microphone that is attached to a computer. The result is a graph that shows which notes you can produce and at what range of intensities.
This profile offers a brief visual summary of the pitches that are within a singer’s range and those that are completely out of bounds. However, it doesn’t account for musical variables such as melody and phrase length. For example, you might be able to produce a single high C in the laboratory, but that doesn’t mean you can hold that note for a long phrase or project it over a screaming guitar riff six nights a week.
A do-it-yourself option for determining your range is to use a computer program that can analyze the pitch of an audio signal (for example, Opcode’s Studio Vision Pro with its Pitch-to-MIDI function or Wildcat Canyon’s Autoscore pitch-recognition software). Simply record different notes in your range that you can sing comfortably, from the lowest to the highest. Then, you can convert this audio information into MIDI data and display the results on the screen.
Of course, this won’t tell you the range of intensities with which you can sing each note, but it will give you an idea of the pitch range that is practical for you. (As you perform this experiment, notice that it is difficult to sing your lowest notes loudly and your highest notes softly.)
Answer the Question
An even simpler method of determining your singing range requires a detour into speech. You’ll need a pitch reference, such as a keyboard or pitch pipe, and a friend to help you. Your friend’s job is to ask you simple questions that you can answer affirmatively and that you genuinely care about. For example, “Are you motivated to make good music?” Your job is to answer spontaneously and energetically, saying “Mm-hmm.”
Let your friend ask a few such questions, and answer each one with an enthusiastic “Mm-hmm.” Gradually extend the “mm-hmmmmmmm” into a humming/singing tone that you can match to your pitch pipe or keyboard. Alternatively, you can analyze the pitch using software. The reference pitch you identify this way is typically one-fourth to one-third the distance from the bottom to the top of your speaking range.
Now, start at this reference pitch and sing down to the lowest note you can produce with good tone; pay attention to how far you can go in terms of the number of half-steps or a musical interval (for example, two and a half steps or a perfect fourth). You can realistically expect to go two to three times as far up from the reference pitch before you reach the first “break point” of your range. You might be able to sing an octave or so above that break point, but it will be in a different register (to be discussed in a moment).
Keep in mind that your basic range will fluctuate slightly from morning to evening and from one day to the next, according to your health, mood, and level of stress. For the most reliable measurement, repeat this process at different times of day and over several days, then use the average result.
As you experiment with singing in different pitch ranges, your voice might sound weak or strained on a particular note, but then something shifts inside your throat and your voice stabilizes a step or two further up (or down) with a different tone quality. That is because you’re moving from one register into another. You’ve probably heard registers referred to as chest voice or belting, in contrast to head voice or falsetto. Voice scientists and vocal instructors still disagree on the precise terminology for these register changes, nor is their production fully understood.
However, at the level of sensation and “throat feel,” the register shift feels similar to operating the manual transmission of a car: As the driver accelerates in one gear, the engine revs faster. This is roughly analogous to a normal increase in effort and vocal-fold tension as someone sings up a scale. Then, at a convenient point, the driver shifts into the next gear, changing the ratio of power and speed, and the motor runs at a more relaxed rate. Similarly, a shift from chest voice to falsetto takes pressure off the vocal folds and requires subtle adjustments in breath support.
Each car’s transmission shifts fluidly at a slightly different speed, and the driver gets the feel of it with practice. Just as a driver has a 10 to 15 mph range in which it’s safe to shift gears, switching vocal registers can be accomplished anywhere within a small range of pitches, depending on the lyrical and musical context.
Classical, jazz, gospel, and pop singing generally require a consistent loudness and smooth transition between registers. (This is one of the many strengths of Whitney Houston’s voice, for example.) Other genres–such as country, bluegrass, and some folk styles–make use of register breaks that are more abrupt. (Think of cowboy songs, Swiss yodeling, and early Joni Mitchell recordings.) One of the appealing aspects of Sarah McLachlan’s vocal style is the marked contrast between her registers, a contrast she uses to express conflicting emotions.
Your own break points will fluctuate slightly: they will be lower in the morning and when you are relaxed or ill, and they will be higher when your adrenaline is pumped. The best way to deal with these shifts is to become familiar with them, avoid forcing your voice roughly in the transitional areas, and develop each register fully on a foundation of good overall technique. The transitions will become easier, and you will be able to use a greater variety of tones for your own creative purposes.
Now that you know which notes you can realistically use and where your voice is apt to change register, go through your repertoire and transpose each song to best fit your voice. A digital keyboard or sequencer can make this process a lot easier than it used to be. If you’re in a band, you should work as a team to find the right key for each song, instead of merely retaining the song’s original key. This might seem like a lot of extra work at first, but it will be worth it in the long run. Eventually, fitting the music to your voice will be as routine as an athlete selecting the right shoes. And experimenting with different keys and instrumental voicings can make your music more appealing.
If you haven’t had much training, work with a private teacher to get your voice in better shape and thus increase your usable range a bit. And if you already have reasonably good vocal technique, practice scales every day at medium loudness, with proper posture and breath support; doing so can help you to gradually add a whole step or two at the top and bottom of your range.
Classical singers and MTV divas are expected to use a two- to three-octave range, gig after gig, with both power and control. However, the average pop melody rarely requires more than an octave or tenth (not counting key modulations and vocal ornaments). For example, Tracy Chapman sings within a relatively small range, but most listeners either don’t notice or don’t care because of her rich timbre, bluesy inflection, and deeply honest presentation.
Using your true voice within a healthy range will ultimately sound more powerful and expressive than shaping your vocals to the arbitrary demands of the marketplace. Fiona Apple doesn’t try to sound like Stevie Nicks, and Luther Vandross is no Johnny Cash. Your voice is already a custom design, so keep it healthy, capitalize on your strengths, and let your unique music shine through.